Socialism and Incentive

by Ike Thacker

There was a joke in the old Soviet Union: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” However widespread (or not) the sentiment suggested by this humor was, the attempt at levity does get at a central question regarding socialism, namely, how do you keep people motivated to work, give them incentive to do so, when cash wages are low and their basic needs are provided for by the government? How do you avoid what Engels called “universal laziness?”

The famous psychologist B.F. Skinner once, in a novel called Walden Two, tried to sidestep the thorny, deeper question to which the question points, that of human nature, by changing that human nature using his behaviorist ideas. The notion was to artificially transform mankind’s flawed nature so that it conforms with what socialism requires.

But I believe that such is unnecessary. Women and men, with their “nature” intact, can be motivated by a multitude of noble causes, including “building socialism.” And anyway, whatever one’s view of human nature, from Hobbesian belief in the state of nature’s “war of all against all,” to John Locke’s “Glorious” view that man’s mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) onto which one can freely write whatever one wishes, to the even more hopeful Unitarian position—socialism is the social system (the similarity of the words is not random) of choice.

First of all, I believe that people can in fact be motivated idealistically. Despite some 600-700 years of not-so-temporary capitalist conditioning, the evidence that they had already come to be so in Eastern Europe in a matter of a few decades runs through Voice of America publications from the time of the transition back to capitalism, consistently: large majorities of folks in the old Eastern bloc had come to see societal well-being, not just their own, as the proper yardstick with which to measure sociopolitical systems.

Even if people were as capitalists claim, though (which they emphatically are not), socialism would still be the proper social system of choice. The reason for this is simple. Even if man is lazy and evil, under socialism he will quickly figure out that, for the first time in human history, he is not working to make somebody else rich and powerful—in a word, that she and he are no longer being exploited. So, people will work much harder, productivity will skyrocket, and everybody will be able to live at least very near the level at which only the wealthy can, now.

Thus, be mankind good or be mankind bad, it is socialism which can best motivate him economically. Not only that, though. The appeal (as with the preceding argument about exploitation) does not even have to be to the “better angels” of man’s nature. It can be strictly materialistic and self-interest-based. This is because 80 percent or even 99 percent or 99.9 percent of people will be better off (much “richer” economically and otherwise) under socialism. Remember: Lenin won in 1917 promising “Peace, Land, and Bread,” not only through appeal to people’s idealism!. The vast majority of ordinary (and other) people will have their material

lives totally transformed by socialism. We can win by appealing to self-interest; the alignment of the result with virtually every moral principle taught by every world religion from Buddhism to humanism to Islam to Judaism and Christianity, is, while the very most important thing, in this sense a bonus.

And what a glorious world we can create! Michael Harrington, despite his reputation no “moderate” in his ultimate hopes and dreams, compared the world that would result under socialism as (in effect) being like the coming of a lush rainforest for beings who have known only desert. We can’t even properly imagine how things will be! Our perception is limited by our experiences in the desert.

The rainforest of socialism is coming in all its glory, though! Socialism benefits 99 percent or 99.9 percent of the world’s people. Even in the U.S., abominably enough, 76 percent of wealth is held by the richest ten percent of the population and only one percent—one percent!—by the poorest 50 percent. These numbers are ultimately unsustainable for the capitalists. Simple arithmetic will win. We will win! Love will win! Si se puede! Viva the 99 percent!

Isaac Marion Thacker, IV (Ike Thacker) is a writer, activist, and high aimer who seeks solutions to violence and to end racist and political repression.